LAWSON, Robert Arthur
A new biography of Lawson, Robert Arthur appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert Arthur Lawson was born at Newburgh of Fife in Scotland on January 1833 and studied architecture at Perth and, later, at Edinburgh. When he was 21 he emigrated to Australia, leaving London on 15 July 1834 in the ship Tongataboo bound for Melbourne. In Australia, like other new arrivals, he worked at various occupations, including gold mining and journalism, but eventually returned to architectural work in Melbourne. In 1861 he was successful in a competition for a design for a new “First Church” in Dunedin. This success enabled him to commence practice in that city, where he settled in 1862. On 15 November 1864 he married Jessie Sinclair Hepburn, a daughter of George Hepburn, the second session clerk of the church. They had three daughters and one son.
The “First Church” was completed in 1874, but during its construction and afterwards he was commissioned to design many other churches, public buildings, and private homes in and around Dunedin. Among these may be mentioned “Knox Church” opened in 1876; Presbyterian churches at Milton, Hampden, and East Taieri; the Manse, at Palmerston; Seacliff Asylum; the Gothic monument in the Northern Cemetery, Dunedin; the old fire station; the Bank of New Zealand; Otago Boys' High School; and Larnach Castle. He also designed buildings for the 1882 exhibition at Christchurch and the opera house in the same city; the municipal building in Dunedin was erected under his supervision, the original design having been won in competition by T. B. Cameron, of Auckland. In 1887 he was in Wellington acting as locum tenens for Thomas Turnbull, and in 1888 he announced his retirement from local practice. In 1890 Lawson returned to Melbourne, but came back to Dunedin in 1900 to resume practice in partnership with J. L. Salmond. A number of commercial buildings were erected under their joint names; but the partnership was of short duration as Lawson died at Pleasant Point, Canterbury, on 3 December 1902 at the age of 69.
To evaluate the quality of Lawson's architecture it is necessary to recognise the stylistic character prevailing at that time. Architecture, because it is a social art, has its characteristic mannerisms at a particular time and place, although these do not necessarily invalidate the fundamental qualities of “Strength”, “Use”, and “Beauty”, which are the basis of architectural criticism. The nineteenth century was an eclectic period when architectural expression tried to retain the grandeur of a social aristocracy in the face of the universal levelling created by a new democratic society. It faithfully expressed the prevailing conditions because the social revolution was by no means complete. There were two main design schools in vogue – “Classic” and “Gothic”; both were traditional and, whilst they were fiercely antagonistic early in the century, they eventually reached the compromise of using Gothic for ecclesiastical work and classic for commercial buildings. Lawson was clearly well versed in the principles of Gothic design; the “First Church”, Dunedin, is a remarkable achievement in this young community; it has been described by the Institute of Architects as a “Magnificent example of Gothic Architecture”. It is certainly one of the finest “Period pieces” in the Dominion. The proportions of the tower and spire and the architect's skilful use of light and shade in the elevational masses give it great beauty. His skill in achieving the soaring quality in the design of spires is seen again at Knox Church, Dunedin, which is plainer and not so elegant but is no less well proportioned.
The church at Taieri has a tower and spire over the entrance, which is an English traditional feature in parish churches; it is the dominant feature of the design and is again well proportioned. In this example Lawson combines stone and brickwork in the walls; the former as quoins for wall openings and for external angles, the latter for the main body of the walls. This feature is seen again at the Bank of New Zealand, the Otago Boys' High School, and at Larnach Castle. It is an early Renaissance treatment, but its significance here is in the skilful use of local building materials; excellent bricks were available in Dunedin, but stone came principally from Oamaru. He showed his wisdom, too, in rejecting stone vaults for the interior of his churches, using instead delightful timber treatments.
Lawson's best work is in the ecclesiastical field; his commercial buildings were never as convincing as his churches, and in the “First Church” he achieved his masterpiece. In this creation he endowed New Zealand with a building which is revered by its people for its beauty, irrespective of its stylistic or functional qualities. He was perhaps fortunate that he practised in Dunedin during a period of prosperity and great confidence in the future; but Dunedin and, indirectly, New Zealand were equally favoured in that a designer of his quality chose to practise there within a few years of the foundation of the city.
by Cyril Roy Knight, M.A., BARCH. (LIVERPOOL), F.R.I.B.A., F.R.S.A., F.N.Z.I.A., Professor Emeritus, University of Auckland.
Otago Daily Times, 4 Dec 1902 (Obit).